Talking Sport : The Tour de France, 2010

Sportsmanship survives in the most unlikely of places

by Lamont Russell

For a sport that has become so thoroughly commercialised and prone to doping scandals, cycling has still somehow managed to retain a few surprising remnants of a more honourable time. Not many other sports have managed it. Even in cricket, the old tradition of a batsman walking when he knows he is out has all but vanished from the professional game. Well, the Tour de France may be the most cash hungry, honour laden contest in professional cycling. Yet the main talking points of the tour this year was the widely condemned decision by the eventual race winner Alberto Contador to take advantage of the problems that suddenly befell Andy Schleck ( the race leader at the time) when the chain on his bike broke on the last ascent of the 15th stage.

Bad, bad move. According to the traditions of the race, no one is supposed to exploit an opportunity when the race leader in the yellow jersey crashes or answers a nature call or has a problem with their bike. Everyone is expected to wait, and not attack in the interim. A few years ago, Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong generously re-affirmed that rule on two separate occasions.

With little less than ten kilometres left in the stage [this was on the 2003 Tour] Lance Armstrong countered a move by Iban Mayo and charged up the road, close to the spectators on the right side. In an unfortunate accident, a feeding bag caught Lance’s right handlebar and sent him straight over the handlebars. Iban Mayo, following closely behind Armstrong, toppled right over him….

Jan Ullrich could easily have jumped ahead to take the jersey, but he showed that he believes in sportsmanship, and that he also remembered Lance paying the same respect to him when he crashed while descending Col de Peyresourde two years ago. No matter how badly Ullrich wanted the jersey, he would not go after it at any price, and his choice to remain one podium step below the jersey harmed his ambition, but not his reputation.

This year, Schleck was leading by 31 seconds when his chain broke – through his own fault, some argued later in Contador’s defence. In any case, Contador attacked and turned his 31 second deficit into an 8 second advantage. That night, Contador was initially reported as saying that he hadn’t been aware of Schleck’s problem, but later conceded that it had been a mistake to exploit the situation. The upshot was that Contador got booed on the podium by fans for a couple of days afterwards, a unique experience for an athlete who is widely respected in the sport.

In the end, it was Schleck himself who – in another example of generosity under fire – asked the fans to stop the booing, and reminded them that Contador deserved to be race leader because he is a great champion. Again, it is hard to imagine Ricky Ponting or even Richie McCaw being quite as gracious. In return, Contador did not appear to challenge Schleck in the second ascent of the Col de Tourmalet – even though this decision would mean that Contador would be one of the few riders to win the tour without having won a single stage, en route. A small act of penance perhaps, for his previous mistake. Incidentally, as many observers noted, the episode only underlined Schleck’s inability to mount a sustained attack on the mountain climbs – instead, his brief spurts of speed did nothing to shake Contador, who comfortably stuck by his wheel all the way up the Tourmalet.

Not everyone was happy to see the outbreak of rampant sportsmanship.

“What we’ve seen between the two favourites is inconceivable,” the two-times winner Laurent Fignon, who knows a thing or two about bitter personal rivalries, said on the eve of the final stage. “Cycling isn’t a friendly game. The competition should be pitiless. When you’re rivals, you can’t love each other. In fact you mustn’t love each other.”

Ironically, by the end of the race in Paris, Contador’s 39 second winning margin over Schleck was exactly the same time – to the second! – that he had made up during the incident with the chain. Looking at those numbers, Schleck will not be lacking for motivation next year.

Contador, still only 27, has now won the race three times. Add in the victory by Carlos Sastre in 2008 and the 2006 victory by Oscar Pereiro (in the wake of the Floyd Landis disqualification) and Spanish riders have clearly dominated the race since the Lance Armstrong era ended in 2005.

Contador doesn’t ride for either of the Spanish teams though – neither the Basque team Euskatel, or the French sponsored/Spanish managed Caisse D’Epargne team. Instead, he rides for Team Astana, who are nominally from Kazakhstan. The entire Astana squad consists of seven Spanish riders under Contador and 12 Kazahks under Alexander Vinokourov – who returned to the Tour this year after his doping suspension and retirement in 2007, and capped his comeback by winning the 13th stage.

Besides the Contador/Schleck kerfuffle, the other talking point of this year’s tour was the dominance in the sprints of the cocky and abrasive Mark Cavendish, from the Isle of Man. This year, Cavendish didn’t clock up enough points in the intermediate sprints to win the green jersey, but his superiority over the field in the end-of stage showdowns was almost freakish. In Paris, as one commentator said, when Cavendish unwound his final sprint it was as if the rest of the field was suddenly pedalling backwards.

For now, Cavendish’s sprinting prowess has silenced the critics of his crash-prone tendencies, all too evident in a crash he caused on stage two of this year’s Tour de France – as well as in this horrendous crash near the end of stage four of the Tour of Switzerland in June, for which he was subsequently penalized by the race judges. The Swiss crash had come after yet another crash in a race in Italy in March.

Contador and Cavendish could hardly be more different personalities. The quiet, intense Spaniard reportedly lives fairly modestly, despite the $450,000 euro prize for winning the Tour and the millions available to him from endorsements. An extensive profile of Contador in The Guardian reported in June on his homely lifestyle:

[He] has remained in the shadows, emerging to take the plaudits before returning to live the life of a normal man in Pinto, an anonymous dormitory town in the Madrid hinterland No tax exile in Monte Carlo for him. As far as indulgences go, Contador’s are decidedly modest by sports star standards: a Porsche he bought after his Giro win, a BMW that was his personal reward after last year’s defeat of Armstrong, a Weimar dog called “Tour” bought after his first win in the French race. Birds are one of his hobbies, but he has given up his aviary of 20 canaries.

On a more serious note, as the same article recounts, Contador also had a brain operation in 2004 to correct a cerebral cavernoma, a major and career threatening lesion that had been causing him to black out and crash. As this inspirational 2007 report says, the sickness never really managed to shake his determination to succeed:

Within three hours of awakening from surgery, he proved that even severe brain trauma hadn’t shaken his focus. His first words to his parents were : “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”My mother heard this many times. We quarreled on this subject. I know there are things that are impossible, but if you do everything you can to get them, you have a better chance to reach your goal.”

“The Asturias accident [the crash that revealed his underlying medical condition] is not even a bad memory for me… when I saw the images on TV, I had the impression that our passage on earth is only transitional, that we are nothing, that it’s okay this way and that suddenly you can be struck with a fatal misfortune. The experience made me mature a lot.”

Again, it is hard to imagine this sort of thing coming from any Anglo-Saxon sports star. Hard to imagine Ricky Ponting for instance, soulfully confiding to the Aussie press that it really was the realization that life is just transitional that turned him into a better cricketer.